Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Being a Writer in a World of Images

Everything changes.  That's the nature of life.  Nothing stays the same forever.

I knew an encyclopedia salesman who had a very hard time changing with the times as encyclopedias went digital. His world would never be the same.

As a writer, that's how I feel sometimes about the increasing focus on images over words in communication, particularly within social media. I was at a workshop yesterday where the presenter said, "Use as few words as possible.  Say it all with the images." I understood exactly what he was saying.  Still, it made me sad.

Yes, I know that the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and in this fast-paced world people are scanning rather than reading. A picture paints a thousand words. I get it.

But sometimes the language used to communicate the message is part of the message itself. Can the full message contained in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet How Do I Love Thee? be communicated in a series of images or an infographic? I don't think so.

There are times when I feel like that encyclopedia salesman. Words are becoming merely the captions for images. Real writing, with punctuation and vowels, that expresses complex ideas is slowly becoming a lost art.

How can we keep it from going away completely?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Handwritten Love

I made a commitment recently to write and send at least three handwritten notes a week.  They can be notes of gratitude, congratulations, or positive thoughts, but they must be thoughtfully handwritten. No quick little "thanks, it was nice to see you" notes are allowed. It requires a focus on the emotion and the real intent of the note, which is to share some handwritten love with the people in my life.

Before I go any further, I need to admit something. The original plan was to write a note every day, but I just couldn't keep up with it.  I decided it would be better to set a reasonable goal that I can live with than to start out with a flash and eventially quit because I "can't do it right." So, I'm writing notes at least three days a week with the hope that someday I can work up to making it a daily practice.

I started this recently, but I've already learned a few things I'd like to share:
  1. It's not as easy as it looks.  I attribute this to the fact that we are so accustomed these days to sending a quick email to communicate that we have lost touch with what it takes to spend time creatively communicating a simple thank you. Each note requires a few minutes of thought, more than I expected. 
  2. Writing it by hand matters. When a note is written by hand, it becomes more personal. Your handwriting makes it uniquely yours so both the words and the physical writing speak with your individual voice.
  3. Handwritten notes speak loudly. In a world of impersonal digital communication, handwritten notes are rare, so they are noticed. 
  4. The process gets the writer in touch with emotions and relationships. Each thank you note focuses me on gratitude. Each note of congratulations focuses me on happiness for the person to whom I'm writing. As I write, I'm thinking about that person and the role s/he plays in my life and how important s/he is to me.
At a time when we seem to have become less connected to each other in many ways, sending some handwritten love is an easy way to strengthen the connections with those we care about.

What was the last handwritten note you wrote?  When did you send it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Letter to My Son's New Teacher

Dear Teacher,

I'm sending the love of my life to you tomorrow morning. He's smart, inquisitive, active, energetic, creative, generous, friendly, sensitive, forgiving, and joyful.  I'd like him to stay that way.

I understand that there are many children in your class and that you must have classroom procedures that sometimes amount to crowd control, but please don't let my son get lost in the crowd. A little bit of attention and praise goes a long way with him.  You'll get much more productivity out of him with praise than with punishment. And when he gets excited and active and struggles to comply with some of your rules, please remember that he's not being disobedient on purpose. Your anger will crush him, so express it sparingly, if at all. While it may not seem like it at times, he wants to please you very much.

My husband and I will support you as much as we can and we will never say a negative word about you in front of our son or to other parents. Of course, we expect the same respect from you.

About homework..... I know that homework is part of the expectation for students these days. However, I also know that the research indicates clearly that there is no connection between homework and academic achievement at the elementary school level. That said, I understand the value of developing discipline and good study habits, but please don't send home a bunch of busy work for homework because you may have other students who don't have parental support at home. My son will be sitting at a desk all day; that's not what I want for him in the evenings.

Another word about homework.... Just as you have priorities for your family, my husband and I have priorities for ours. Family time and church activities trump homework every time. Don't get me wrong.  Most of the time, we're able to manage it all and teaching our son how to do that is part of our job, but sometimes we just can't. Please trust me to know when a family commitment is more important than the day's homework - and don't punish my son for it.

About academic achievement.....My son's academic progress is very important to me, but I know you have 32-34 students in your class and managing learning for all of them in several different subject areas is nearly impossible. Don't worry.  I'll be working with him at home. I'm not talking about homework. I'll be spending time with him every night using hands-on, fun activities to reinforce what you have covered at school.

I view my son's education as my responsibility, not yours. I will make sure he masters the academic standards for his grade level (and more). The more you communicate with me about what you're teaching, the better the support I can provide. Also, if my son is struggling with something, I can help if you let me know right away. Waiting until parent-teacher conference time to communicate is too late. If I find out at conference time that my son is struggling with something and that's the first I heard about it, I will not be a happy camper. Send an email, a text or a phone call. It doesn't have to be long, just long enough to alert me to something I need to address with him at home.

As much as I can do at home, there are lessons he can only learn at school. "Working and playing well with others," specifically with his peers, is something he needs to learn at school. Cooperating with others and functioning effectively in both large and small groups are things I can't teach him at home. Dealing with bullies without resorting to bullying himself is a lesson to be learned at school.  We can talk about it at home, but it will happen (or not) on your watch.

I am aware that you have a long list of standards and district-adopted curricula to teach, so it's easy to think of the children as vessels to be filled with your knowledge (and academic standards), but that's a faulty paradigm and I think you know it. The children come with many gifts and knowledge to be shared with each other and with you. My son is a computer whiz at the age of 8. It didn't happen by accident.  My husband and I know that technology will play a prominent role in his future. At home, he walks over to he computer and logs on anytime he wants. It will be difficult for him to adjust to having specific "computer time" only a couple of times a week and using paper and pencil to accomplish tasks that are much easier to complete with technology. He'll shine for you in many ways if you let him shine in his area of strength sometimes.

I hope you have a wonderful school year.  Ok, my motives are purely selfish because I know that if you have a great year, it is likely that my son will, too. So, get lots of sleep and eat right. I hope you get all of the support you need to do an exemplary job.  If you need my help, please let me know. I want you to succeed. I'm on your side.

Remember, I'm sending you the love of my life.


Veronica Robbins

Monday, August 20, 2012

Get a Life!

Get a life!  I've heard that phrase shouted at people when the shouter wanted them to mind their own business. I don't think it's ever been applied to me (at least not to my face) except for when friends were casually encouraging me to stop working so much. It was always one of those phrases that was about other people.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked around one day and realized that I didn't have a life.

I had responsibilities.  I had commitments. But when someone asked me what I did for fun, I was puzzled. What a silly question, I thought. Until I tried to answer it.

I used to try to say that I didn't have time for fun.  Then I tried to say that my work was fun. It was all a cover up, though, for the fact that, indeed, I didn't have a life.

So, I took up a hobby. I started knitting again. I hadn't held knitting needles in my hands since high school. Of course, I became obsessive with my new hobby and knitted a scarf for just about everyone in my extended family for Christmas.  I knitted until it wasn't as much fun anymore. Then I added crochet, and I did that until it wasn't as much fun anymore. Then it was cross stitch, and then I did a little of all three, but it still didn't feel like I had a life (as if I would know what that feels like....).

Note to self: Getting a life is not just about getting a hobby.

I thought maybe it might have something to do with getting more active socially, so I joined a few things. I decided to join Rotary. I reactivated my interest in my local Chamber of Commerce. I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, "Wow, this woman really knows how to have fun!"

You can stop laughing at me now.  It's not my fault I never learned how to do this. I was raised by a single mom who didn't have a life, either.

I decided to go to the fair with my husband.  That would be fun, right? We went to the fair and walked through the exhibits, which I actually did enjoy..... for a while. A couple of hours later, the 100+ degree heat left me drenched in sweat and all the walking had my arthritic knees screaming out in pain.  I must have been quite a sight - sweaty, hobbling but refusing to leave early because, "Woohoo! We're having fun!"

Note to self: Too much fun like that might just kill me. Thank God the fair comes around only once a year.

Then it came to me.  Church activities.  Those can serve double duty, ya know.  I can get a life here on earth and also secure one for later.

I also thought it might be good to get my son into more activities and then I could volunteer to help. Hello, Cub Scouts.

I wouldn't be the first mother to live vicariously through her children. I started setting things in motion for those activities immediately.

Then something amazing happened. As the afternoon wore on last Friday, I started thinking about getting home. I had a needlepoint project for a friend to finish, and I told my son I'd read with him, and I couldn't wait to watch the Giants game with my husband. I had planned something different for dinner, and I was looking forward to trying out the new recipe. Hubby and I also needed to talk about schedules and Cub Scouts and church activities.

When closing time came, instead of saying good night to everyone as they passed my desk on their way out, I was saying good bye to them as I started shutting the office down. When I ran out the door I yelled back for the last person to lock up, and I happily skipped (yes, skipped!) to my car.


Because I have a life. It's not what I expected it would be, but it's a good one.

It used to be that the most exciting things going on in my life were work-related. That's not true anymore. My work is still challenging and interesting, but it's not the center of my life anymore.

What do you do to keep your life balanced?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Loving What You Do

I came to a realization lately. Life is just too short to spend one-third (or more!) of your time doing something that you don't love.

I know. This is probably not new to many of you, but I guess I'm slower than some. Like most people, I had been going through life doing a job that I didn't really enjoy. Why?  It paid the bills.  I had responsibilities. I had no back up income. What I do for a living supports my family and that's it.  I don't have the luxury of taking time to "find myself" while someone else supports us.

Lots of people live their whole life like that, just putting one foot in front of the other, tolerating work that doesn't give them joy or feed their spirit because they think they have no other choice.  Maybe that's true in some cases. I certainly can't speak for everyone, but it turns out that I do have choices.

I remember a time when I felt like I was making a difference and I did it for that reason. Eventually, though, even that wasn't enough.

The day came when I decided that I didn't want to live that way anymore, so I made a decision to stop doing the part of my business that I didn't enjoy. The next part was decision to focus on doing what I love, on writing things I want to write, on helping people by doing what I love.

Is it scary?  Yes, absolutely. But you know what's even scarier?  The thought of spending another 25 years, 60 hours a week, doing something I can't stand and living with the stress and pressure of it all.

I used to describe leaving public education and going into consulting work like letting go of the side of the pool.  The water is the same, but you have to learn to swim on your own. Going into business for yourself is like getting out of the pool and swimming in the ocean. There are waves and sharks and more hazards than you can imagine, but it's still water, and it's still swimming. Making a shift in the nature of the business is like swimming in the ocean, but changing the stroke I'm using.

How long will it take me to swim as efficiently with the butterfly as I was with the breast stroke?  I don't know. 

Will I be able to do it?  Of course I will.

It's still swimming.


I'll share more about this change over the next week in coming posts.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Does the Shortage of ADHD Medication Matter?

The shortage of drugs for ADHD (like Adderall, Ritalin, and other amphetamine stimulants) has been going on for over a year now. In some areas, people are unable to get their prescriptions filled.  Parents are calling pharmacies checking for availability. Some are going to other states to get the medication if there is no availability in their area.

You can read more about the shortage here.

You may be thinking that shortages of cancer drugs are more serious. That may be so, but don't make the mistake of assuming that ADHD drugs don't save lives, because they do. Teens with untreated ADHD are in four times as many car accidents as teens with treated ADHD and teens without ADHD. Children with untreated ADHD have more injuries and more trips to the emergency room.

While I don't have any stats on it, I would also bet that rate of child abuse is higher in families with a child with untreated ADHD. I can certainly attest to the fact that a child with properly treated ADHD has a saner mom than one who hasn't taken his meds. It was a completely unscientific study, but I think my entire family would swear to its accuracy.

Schools have begun noticing the effect of the shortage, too. They are seeing more classroom disruptions, more fights on the playground, and more impulsive behavior in general.

Adults with ADHD have more car accidents and lose their jobs at a higher rate when they can't take their medication.  The article I linked above includes the story of a college student whose GPA went from 3.2 to 1.9, largely due to his inability to focus without medication.

Not everyone who has ADHD controls it with medication. Some use a behavioral approach alone.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't (as you have probably gathered from previous posts you have read here). But those who need the medication because a behavioral approach alone simply doesn't work really need it to function effectively every day in the world. There are real consequences for them and those around them.

There is some disagreement about what the shortage is all about.  Some say that it is the result of more adults being diagnosed with ADHD and being treated with medication. Others say that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has tightened up its control of the active ingredients. The FDA controls them as a strategy to prevent abuse. Still others argue that the FDA is releasing enough, but with the increase in demand, the drug companies are using their portions to make more of the costlier name brands than the generics that most insurance companies will approve - indicating that there may not really be a shortage of the medication, just a shortage of the medication accessible to most people.

Whatever the cause, it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed and resolved.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Creativity on Demand

I write grants and evaluation reports.  I also write for 6 blogs. It's a lot of writing, and that isn't even counting email, twitter, Facebook, and other social media posts. There are times when I just can't write one more word. There are also times when I can write, but I couldn't come up with a creative thought to save my life.

Contrary to what most people think, creativity is not always available on demand. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between creativity and pressure.  The higher the pressure, the harder it is to be creative.  I think pressure and stress are the hairball clogs of our mental plumbing.

I sit at my computer with a task in front of me and all I can really do is hope that the creativity is going to be flowing.  Sure, I can prepare.  I can do research and develop outlines, and those things actually help, but the difference between something that is technically correct and dry and something that is inspired and original is made my that magic that I can't make happen.

So, I prepare and hope. And I write.

Sometimes there's magic.  Sometimes there's not.

But the feeling created by that magic is like alcohol to an alcoholic or Vegas to a gambler.

That's why I keep writing.